On Dec. 16, the International Feature Film executive committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences met in the Academy’s seventh-floor boardroom. Its task was to choose three titles to add to the seven selected by the general committee members, making a total of 10 films. Submissions from 91 countries were considered; several countries were participating in the process for the first time.
This year, in addition to the shortlist screenings in Los Angeles, New York and London, all 10 titles are available for streaming to Academy members worldwide. Because this award is widely perceived to be the Best Picture Oscar for foreign-language films, it will be revealing to see how many of the Academy’s near 9,000 members commit to seeing all 10 films. They must do so in order to vote for the five titles to be nominated. (Nominations will be announced Jan. 13.)
Here, in alphabetical order by country, are the 10 shortlisted films:
- Czech Republic, The Painted Bird
- Estonia, Truth and Justice
- France, Les Misérables
- Hungary, Those Who Remained
- North Macedonia, Honeyland
- Poland, Corpus Christi
- Russia, Beanpole
- Senegal, Atlantics
- South Korea, Parasite
- Spain, Pain and Glory
The Painted Bird is adapted from the harrowing, esteemed 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Various attempts to bring it to the screen encountered roadblocks to production. The title comes from one of the many episodes described in the novel. The Wikipedia entry describes it thus:
The book title was drawn from an incident in the story. The boy, while in the company of a professional bird catcher, observes how the man took one of his captured birds and painted it several colors. Then he released the bird to fly in search of a flock of its kin, but when the painted bird came upon the flock, they saw it as an intruder and viciously attacked the bird until it fell from the sky.
Directed by Vaclav Marhoul, The Painted Bird was photographed by Vladimir Smutny on 35mm Kodak Double-X stock. The cinematographer received two awards at the recent EnergaCamerimage festival in Torun, Poland. It is an emotionally disturbing film illustrating a very dark side of humanity under duress; it occasioned walkouts at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, as well as at its official Academy screening — a testament to the immersive power that won it the UNICEF award in Venice. The dialogue is in a language called Interslavic, a kind of Esperanto for the Slavic countries, but not an official language in any country. This polarizing movie might be the true dark horse for an Academy nomination.
From Estonia is Truth and Justice, a drama of peasant life and struggle set in 1870. Directed by Tanel Toom, it is adapted from the first in a tetralogy novel by Anton Hansen Tammsaare evoking a multigenerational portrait of Estonian society. It’s made with a compelling sense of visual detail, and it is said to be the “most watched” film ever in Estonian cinemas.
Les Misérables is a contemporary, loose adaptation evoking the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, but more so the 2005 race riots in the Parisian suburbs. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ladj Ly, it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and is also a candidate for Best Picture consideration.
Those Who Remained is the entry from Hungary by director Barnabas Toth. Its U.S. premiere was at Telluride, and its story follows two Jewish survivors of World War II: a young woman and an older man who is her physician. The film sends an inspirational message about survival and moving on with life. Emotionally direct and unsentimental, it renders the larger issue of post-Holocaust survival with intimate immediacy and quiet resolution.
Honeyland is a documentary from ethnic Turkish North Macedonia that looks and plays like a fictional feature. The 87-minute film was crafted from 500 hours of camera footage shot over three years, and it raises provocative questions about exactly what constitutes a documentary. That’s not to say it is anything less than mesmerizing in its craftsmanship.
Centered around one woman, a beekeeper named Hatidze, its localized story becomes universal, much like the iconic documentaries of Robert Flaherty, whose own work broached some of the same questions. Co-directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film won three awards at Sundance.
Corpus Christi is from Poland. Its director, 38-year-old Jan Komasa, has worked in theater, music and cinema, and his eclectic work has been richly rewarded by multiple festivals. He is a graduate of the Polish National Film School in Lödz. The movie’s mashup portrait of disaffected, incarcerated youth (one of whom, seeking redemption, poses as a rural Catholic priest) and grassroots believers brings a Bressonian dialectic smack up against the real pain of parishioners unable to forgive each other.
From Russia comes Beanpole, directed by 26-year-old Kantemir Balagov; this is his second feature. This story of survival in postwar Leningrad in 1945 won an award for Best Director in Cannes in the Un certain regard division. The previous year, Balagov was a juror in the same festival.
From Senegal comes Atlantics, the debut feature by 37-year-old director/actress Mati Diop. It is an expansion of her 2009 short film, Atlantiques. Using elements of the horror genre to explore societal inequality, the film follows men who drown trying to migrate to Spain and return as spirits in women’s bodies.
The most talked-about international film this year is from South Korea: Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, who also made Snowpiercer, Mother and Okja. Parasite is a dark comedy about societal conflict in a fractured upstairs/downstairs scenario. To say anything more would detract from its breakneck tension and mesmerizing plot twists. I first saw it with Spanish subtitles at the Morelia festival, but the storytelling is so visual I never felt at a loss. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and many are predicting it will also be nominated in the Best Picture category.
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, a perennial hipster and cinema trendsetter, has made a personal and reflective movie in Pain and Glory, the story of a Spanish filmmaker in crisis who revisits his life — a kind of Latin Otto e mezzo. Unlike the hyper-stylized late Fellini, however, Almodóvar honors a more classic cinema style, with a few nods to fluid time. The film is surprising and deeply moving in its vulnerability. Antonio Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination for him in a very tough competitive year is not unlikely.
Like 2018, 2019 was an amazing year for international cinema, and the Academy’s shortlist could have easily included at least a dozen more films. To many with whom I’ve spoken, one surprising omission is Italy’s entry, The Traitor. Its 80-year-old director, Marco Bellocchio, set Italian cinema on fire in 1965 with his second feature, Fists in the Pocket, followed by China Is Near. The Traitor documents the Sicilian Mafia Cosa Nostra trials of the late 1980s and 1990s. Partly courtroom drama, it is relentlessly paced and feels like the debut of a filmmaker 60 years younger.
The Traitor’s visceral immediacy is a fascinating contrast to the nostalgic tone that pervades The Irishman. I was deeply disappointed that the film was not shortlisted, but I think my colleagues on the committee can say the same of a dozen other features.
The theatrical runs for many of these films might be over, but several are streaming and are well worth seeking out. Seeing them will renew your hope in great movies in a cinematic universe otherwise dominated by Marvel Comics, Jumanji and Star Wars. Devotees of international art cinema are convinced we’re in a very special time.